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John Adams. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13002 DLC).

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Adams, John (19 October 1735–04 July 1826), second president of the United States, diplomat, and political theorist, was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, the son of John Adams (1691–1760), a shoemaker, selectman, and deacon, and Susanna Boylston. He claimed as a young man to have indulged in “a constant dissipation among amusements,” such as swimming, fishing, and especially shooting, and wished to be a farmer. However, his father insisted that he follow in the footsteps of his uncle Joseph Adams, attend Harvard College, and become a clergyman. John consented, applied himself to his studies, and developed a passion for learning but refused to become a minister. He felt little love for “frigid John Calvin” and the rigid moral standards expected of New England Congregationalist ministers....

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Elbridge Gerry. Engraving by James Barton Longacre, c. 1830, based on a drawing by John Vanderlyn. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-1889).

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George Athan Billias

Gerry, Elbridge (17 July 1744–23 November 1814), statesman, was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Gerry, a merchant, and Elizabeth Greenleaf. His father was a British immigrant who arrived in 1730, settled in Marblehead, and became one of the most successful merchants in Essex County. The brightest of eleven children, Elbridge entered Harvard in 1758, graduated in 1762, and returned in 1765—the year of the Stamp Act—to submit his master’s thesis. Already a firebrand at twenty-one, he argued in it the question: “Can the new Prohibitary Duties which make it useless for the people to engage in Commerce, be evaded by them as faithful subjects?” His answer was “Yes.”...

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Thomas Jefferson. After a painting by Gilbert Stuart, artist. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117117 DLC).

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Jefferson, Thomas (13 April 1743–04 July 1826), philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the United States, was born at Shadwell, in what became Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Peter Jefferson, a pioneer farmer and surveyor, and Jane Randolph. He always valued the enterprising example of his father, who set him in the path of education; he became “a hard student,” indeed remained one throughout his life. Peter Jefferson died in 1757, leaving to his son a fair estate—5,000 acres and the slaves to work them. Less than three years later, Jefferson, already a proficient classical scholar, enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg....